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Virtual outreach: connecting farmers in the Caribbean

Small farmers dominate farming in the Caribbean (© FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri)
Small farmers dominate farming in the Caribbean
© FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri

Small farmers dominate farming in the Caribbean, where state extension and advisory services are financially stretched and consequently, the provision of timely, accurate advice, is less than adequate. To help small farmers in the region, a team from the University of the West Indies, in collaboration with a University of Greenwich graduate, made use of mobile 'smart' phones to improve the accessibility of relevant agricultural knowledge and information.

The use of mobile phones is widespread across the Caribbean, recent statistics showing that in some countries there are up to 1.5 mobile phones per person. With vibrant competition among mobile service providers, prices have dropped and some countries boast 99 per cent coverage. Developed in September 2011, a virtual extension outreach pilot project was tested in St Vincent and the Grenadines between October 2011 and January 2012, allowing for modifications to meet farmers' specific needs.

The project began by assessing the information and communication technology (ICT) needs of farmers using a focus group made up of six female and three male farmers from Langley Park. Two mobile phones with internet were provided to Langley Park community centre, which served as a hub. The focus group, together with the researchers, then agreed on two projects for testing.

Two projects for testing

The first project was a question and answer service which involved sending queries, including photos taken on a mobile phone, via SMS and uploading these on to the virtual outreach system. These were then routed by a service manager to one or more experts. Major pest and disease problems, including leaf spot in banana and tomato, along with cases of nematodes and bacterial wilt were among queries sent for identification.

The virtual outreach system has been designed to keep farmers abreast of the latest means of crop protection (© Luca Tommasini/FAO)
The virtual outreach system has been designed to keep farmers abreast of the latest means of crop protection
© Luca Tommasini/FAO

During the four month trial, all queries were answered within 24 hours. Farmers initially sent only questions, but subsequently began to include photos of diseased crops for identification. During the trial the role of the manager was filled by the system's developer, Mr Anton Robinson, but the aim is to use local extension officers.

The second project comprised a virtual training programme, consisting of e-courses on low-cost greenhouses and composting field waste by a team from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad. Farmers were provided with a laptop and projector and trained to set up, use and maintain the equipment. Using Skype and YouTube, nine farmers received training from Dr Wayne Ganpat, lecturer in agriculture economics and extension at St. Augustine. The students were also able to 'share' Dr Ganpat's desktop, enabling them to see and follow his presentation.

Improving on the past

Previously, much of farmers' agricultural knowledge was obtained from extension officers or other farmers. "There are limits to the knowledge disseminated because pests and diseases have the ability to express themselves differently in cropping systems, resulting in disease complexes which may be overlooked or misdiagnosed by the extension officers and farmers," says Ms. Kenia-Rosa Campo, graduate student of the University of the West Indies.

The virtual outreach system has been designed to keep farmers abreast of the latest means of crop protection and reinforce the use of integrated pest management. "The experts are able to explain to farmers on a one-to-one basis their recommendations with reasoning, thereby functioning as a virtual extension officer," adds, Mr. Anton Robinson, system developer. "Farmers are not only more aware of pest control methods and impacts but the system also has the ability to capture knowledge on its database, building on farmers' and extension officers' bodies of knowledge."

Assessing impact

While no formal evaluation was conducted on the impact of this training, the Langley Park farmers in St. Vincent have been pressing for further training using the virtual system and have identified several areas for short-term training to build their knowledge and skills. A schedule of training has been developed, including compost making, to enable the farmers to pursue organic farming.

Whilst the response to the virtual outreach system has been positive, farmers have highlighted the need for further training to use the system and for financial resources to purchase smart phones. "While this is an increased cost, the farmers understand the benefits of having issues resolved in a much shorter time and in receiving specialised training from experts," says Dr. Ganpat.

Extending experience gained

Farmers in St Vincent continue to send in queries to the Q&A service (© Saul Palma/FAO)
Farmers in St Vincent continue to send in queries to the Q&A service
© Saul Palma/FAO

According to Mr Ashton Stanley, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, St Kitts and Nevis, the virtual outreach system could be a solution to the shortcomings of current extension services: "The system is something we can benefit tremendously from. I would welcome its development in St. Kitts and Nevis, as we are an economy in transition with limited human resources; a network like this could facilitate the process in terms of information gathering."

Although the pilot project has ended, the Q&A service has continued and is building momentum as farmers in St Vincent continue to send in queries. The system is also being tested in Belize, St Lucia and St Kitts and Nevis. The overall plan is to eventually introduce the virtual outreach system to all Caribbean islands and to assist them in establishing their own virtual extension training.

Written by: Anton Robinson, Kenia-Rosa Campo, Wendy-ann Isaac, Wayne Ganpat and Terry Sampson

Date published: March 2012


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